Up in the Air: Five Questions on the Meaning and Purpose of Work





Up in the Air: Five questions on the meaning and purpose of work

 The 2009 film Up in Air raises plenty of robust questions on the meaning and purpose of work. Below I have listed five that I noticed upon viewing.


  • Dehumanization at Work

The dehumanizing effects of work are often discussed in connection with lower class, factory-oriented, and sweatshop-type work. However, Up in the Air appears to record how Ryan Bingham’s humanity is slowly being drained away through a relatively well-paid and white-collar job. One reviewer notes that through his job, Bingham is “a player so expert at the rules of the game… that he doesn’t notice, until too late, that the game has hollowed him out.” Over years of constant travel and meaningless connections Bingham loses his ability to connect, sympathize, commit, or remain placed.

  1. Bingham certainly bared some responsibility for this process, but how did his working environment contribute to his dehumanized state?
  2. Dehumanization is present in every single line of work. What does it look like in your field? How might people become “undone” or be made sub-human through work in your field?


  • Technology and Human Connection

The characters Natalie and Ryan engage in a film-long debate on whether or not workers can be fired over a video chat connection. Valuing speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, the young and ambitious Natalie advocates that the company save millions by firing people remotely over the Internet. Ryan counters by arguing that the act of firing is sensitive, complicated, and requires human presence and grace. Their film-long debate captures a question many of us experience in our own workplaces.

  1. How can technology act as both a gift and a curse to the flourishing of your working environment?


  • Work and Human Identity

The director of Up in the Air opted to splice into the film an array of short clips of people reflecting on the experience of being fired. Rather than hire actors, the director used real footage from real people in St. Louis and Detroit who had been fired during the most recent recession. Their reflections revealed how intimately the experience had affected their sense of identity and hope.

  1. If you were to lose your job tomorrow, what sort of impact would that have on your identity?
  2. Why does our work touch our sense of identity so deeply?


  • The Good Life

The three main characters (Ryan, Alex, and Natalie) all spend some time in the film discussing their vision of “the good life.”

  1. How would each character answer that question?
  2. Work seems to be a place where questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are not always welcome, yet, paradoxically, these questions seem to come up frequently in the workplace. Why is this?


  • Speed and Efficiency

Speed and efficiency are critical to Ryan Bingham. He moves smooth and fast throughout the film. When he is forced to wait or is slowed down in any way he is immediately and visibly annoyed. Efficiency and productivity have become cardinal virtues in many working places- trumping all other values.

1. How do the values of speed and efficiency both positively and negatively affect your workplace and your own quality of life?

Matthew is the Director of the Cascade Fellows and the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture in Seattle, WA. His main research areas include theology, culture, work, and economics. He studied Political Science at Whitworth University. He earned an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary along with doctoral degrees in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and Systematic Theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. Matthew currently serves as the Director of Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture in Seattle. He teaches courses at Fuller Seminary Northwest in theology, ethics, and culture. In 2011 Matthew was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research in the Netherlands on the contemporary conflict between Islam and secularism in Europe. While he has published articles and chapters in a number academic journals and books, he has also published in a number of popular level journals on faith and culture including Comment Magazine, Fieldnotes Magazine, and the Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue Journal. Matthew lives in Lynnwood, Washington with his wife Heather, their three sons Calvin, Kees, and Cademan, and a dog named Henry.


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